Jonathan Greenblatt: The Jewish Diaspora and Israel

November 01, 2015

For many years, a consensus existed in the organized American Jewish community that we should support the democratically-elected government of Israel, whether Labor or Likud, on a non-partisan basis, particularly on matters of Israeli security.

The logic was twofold:  Moral – Israelis put their lives on the line every day in a dangerous neighborhood and we, sitting in the comfort of America, should respect Israel’s democratic process regarding the safety and security of the people of Israel.

The other reason was pragmatic – the more the community was united behind Israel, the more we could positively influence policymaking in Washington.

Unfortunately, this approach, which we essentially still believe is sound, has endured tremendous stress in recent years, pushing it close to the point of collapse.  First it was the political Left in the 80’s who argued that American Jews should have a voice against the right-wing policies, particularly settlements, of the Likud governments.

Then, in the 90’s, it was the political Right who railed against the Oslo accords, seeing them as danger to Israel.

And in the course of the past two presidents, President George W Bush and President Obama, these fissures have grown greater.  The emergence of new actors particularly J Street, has given voice to elements within the Jewish community that felt underrepresented by existing institutions.  At the same time, their alliance with certain elements on the Left has alienated many on the Right, further deepening the divides.  The recent debate in America around the Iran Deal exemplified the fragmentation as it was characterized by incivility all around.

Today, it is much more difficult to suggest there is any consensus position in our community as to what our responsibility is to the government of Israel.  There is a lot less unity than once prevailed

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that the mainstream community can’t come together when Israel is under siege.  In fact this has happened repeatedly in the recent past – including Protective Edge just over a year ago wherein the community rallied together.  And, even after the fractious debate on the Iran Deal, we at ADL helped to rally more than 50 Jewish organizations, some who opposed the deal and some who supported the deal, to come together and sign a statement of unity that was issued between in the Days of Awe before Yom Kippur.

So, I believe that Israel can rely on the American Jewish community when it really needs us.

Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews still believe that Jewish support for Israel by the community is vital for Israel’s security and to work for American support for Israel.

Personally and institutionally, I wish that we could push a button and revert back to the good old days -- simple bipartisan support by both major political parties in the US for Israel, support that would come frominside our community and others across the country.

There is still plenty of bi-partisan support but we live in changing times.

And where it gets even more complicated is on non-security issues.  Here there has long been a belief that the Diaspora should have more of a voice than it has had.

This applies particularly to two areas:  First, the domination of religious life in Israel by the Orthodox, a fact that has alienated many conservative and reform Jews in America, the vast majority of our community.

And second, issues of intolerance that are very real in the Jewish State.  Towards that end, ADL uses its voice to condemn manifestations of prejudice wherever they surface in Israel just as we do in the US.

And, at the same time, we provide educational services to help Israelis to learn about respect for the so-called “other” however you choose to define that otherness, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, European or Ethiopian, Jew or Muslim, citizen or migrant, Israeli or Palestinian.

Separating out when American Jews should have a voice regarding Israeli policies and when we should not is never easy.  At ADL, we believe, however, that on the security side, we should err on the side of giving the democratic Jewish state of Israel the space to decide for itself.  But, on matters of society, the theme of one people, in and out of Israel, should more often than not be the guiding principle.

Our relationship continues to be a work in progress.  The goal is to foster closer and more intense relations between the people of Israel and American Jews because we believe deeply that HE NEY MA TOV, how good it is when we are together in unity.